Why a wise crowd is better than a survey or poll

People rely on polls and surveys a great deal. They use them to test reactions to new products, choose governments, and make decisions about important questions. Wise Crows do not face the same limitations of polls and surveys.


People rely on polls and surveys a great deal. They use them to test reactions to new products, choose governments, and make decisions about important questions. 

But polls and surveys have some consequential limitations. 

The cost: It’s expensive to poll a population (ask everyone) or survey them (ask a representative sample). It’s not just the cost of the poll or survey, which can be very significant. There’s also the cost in time spent answering it. If a thousand people answer a 15-minute survey, that’s 250 hours of their time, or about 6 working weeks. 

Populism: Sometimes we want to know what the majority think (the ‘popular vote’). But other times we want answers that are essentially factual and not necessarily popular. If you want to know which is the best-value new electric vehicle, or which research proposal is most worthy of funding, a poll may be quite unhelpful. 

Atomism: There’s a further limitation built into the way polls and surveys conceive of the respondent – as a social atom. In this construct, a person is assumed to be self-interested and therefore always answering from a selfish perspective. The problem is, people are not social atoms – or not always. They are also members of groups and communities whose preferences may be social rather selfish. 

This is where ‘wise crowd’ methods win out. 

First, they are cheaper to administer and less burdensome on a community. The reason is that a wise crowd can be as few as 6-7 people. That means they can be accessed more often and decision-makers can make much wider use of community knowledge and judgement (‘wisdom’). 

Second, a wise crowd process is not really about popularity or representativeness. It’s about aggregating information and arriving at the answer that is most likely to be right. So if you ask a wise crowd which is the best value electric vehicle or most valuable research proposal, you’ll probably get the right answer – whether or not it’s popular or representative.

Third, wise crowd processes don’t share the polling assumption of self-interest. They can be designed to be social in focus – asking people to think and respond as members of a community.

This combination of benefits gives wise crowd processes a big head start on polls and surveys if you really want to know the best answers for a given group, community or population.

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